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Best Montana Elk Rut Guide

19 Sep
Buzz Tatom September 19, 2016 0

Updated 4/20/2018

So the Montana elk rut has started. Well, it actually started several weeks ago but now we are nearing the peak of the rut. This is one of the most exciting times to be on a Montana ranch or public land. This is the time of year where everything and everyone is speeding to get as much in before the snow falls and covers us for several months. A frenzy of activity to feed and breed before everything becomes concerned about surviving the winter. The elk are no exception. This Montana Elk Rut Guide will tell you about timing, whys and the best places to view the Montana elk rut. Until you have experienced and seen the Montana elk rut, you haven’t truly lived. It is spectacular. Here at Venture West Ranches, we love partnering buyers with ideal hunting ranches to experience the Elk rut.

Timing of the Montana Elk Rut

So, there is a great deal of theories and wives tails told about what the elk rut is and when it occurs. You will hear it is driven by the weather, that it is 25 weeks after Easter and it is a moon cycle issue. The science is that the peak happens within 5-10 days of the Fall Equinox. The Fall Equinox is September 22nd or 23rd of every year. The rut will start in late August and run through to mid-October but if you are wanting the most fevered action of the Montana elk rut you need to plan on mid-September.

The Montana elk rut happens due to the ratio of light to dark of the Sun and Moon. This causes the hormones in the cow elk that throws them into their Estrus cycle. Each cow elk goes into their estrus cycle at different times. Some might be as early as mid to late August. Younger cow elk are usually later then mature cow elk. This can run into multiple cycles for cow elks not bred that can run into late October. This is God’s way of making sure as many cow elk get bred as possible.

The Start

Estrus causes odorous pheromone that attracts the bulls. The bulls will travel miles to find cow elk that are in the mood and in a cycle. The bull elk gather cow elk (5-30 cows) into a harem that they watch over and try to keep gathered from other bulls. This is where it gets entertaining. The bulls will scream, known as bugling. This is partly about attracting cow elk, part warning other bull elk and part that they are just so filled with testosterone that they are the perfect example of elk road rage.

The bull elk also drench themselves in their own urine, scrape and urinate in wallows then lay in the urine soaked mud. This is all part of making themselves attractive to the women folk! You will see them claw and use their antlers to throw grass clods and mud clods up in the air. In some of these pictures, you will see grass in the antlers that this Montana bull elk had just uprooted from the ground. It is very common during the Montana elk rut to smell the elk before you see them.

The Bull

Bull elks become so focused on breeding during the Montana elk rut that they won’t eat and lose considerable weight and can go into winter in a very weakened state. Between gathering a harem, breeding, battling off or bluffing other challenging bulls they expend much energy. Their bugles are a mix between attracting cows, locating cows and intimidating other bulls. Sometimes, they have to do battle with another bull elk. Most the time, this ends in a mature bull elk quickly running a younger bull elk off. The danger is when you have two evenly matched bulls. If they are both in the fight two bull elk weighing 700-800 lbs can do critical damage to each other. It can even be fatal. If you look at the physics of the big animals with that kind of acceleration a battle that lasts more than a few minutes usually ends up in some kind of injury.

A bull elk can reach breeding age in their second year. Doesn’t mean they do breed because they are pretty low on the totem pole. A cow elk will come to breeding age in their third breeding season usually at 2.5 years. Cow elks will usually just have one calf. It is very rare for them to have twins. 

Elk Antlers

Elk Rut in Montana

Elk antlers grow very quickly. Since elk drop antlers each year usually in March and they stop growing in August you can see that a bull elk has @ 5 months to grow over 300” of antler. They start in velvet and in August they stop growing and the velvet starts shedding. Either by falling off or by the bull elk rubbing the velvet off, the antlers are bloody at first but turn either white or darker colors that are stained by the trees or vegetation they are rubbed against. This is where you will see trees rubbed by elk. These are called rubs and are a good sign that bull elk may be in the area.

Rutting Activities

The Montana elk rut breeding mostly happens at night during a full moon. Hunters are not happy when the Montana elk rut coincides with a full moon. This means early morning or very late in the day chances since the elk will exhaust themselves breeding during the night and bed during the day. On the other hand, when there is a dark night that means a full day’s chance at viewing rut activity.

Bull elk rutting activities include urinating all over themselves, scraping and clawing at ground, bugling and sticking their tongues out. The urinating is for the musky smell and involves urine and usually wallowing in mud. The scraping is marking their territory and again getting that mud for the musky smell. The bugling can be for attracting or locating cows or warning off challenging bulls. The tongues are to attract cows and is one of the weirdest but interesting mating rituals of an elk.

Best Places to See the Montana Elk Rut

So where are the best places to see the Montana elk rut? Montana Elk Rut Central is Yellowstone National Park. The elk rut can be displayed anywhere in the Park but there are a few places well known for a great display. Mammoth Springs is one and it will be played out in the streets many times. If you want to experience the wild go to the Madison River area near the West Yellowstone entrance of YNP. These areas are famous for their elk rut displays and if you go early or late in the day you will usually be treated to a show. The next place I would recommend is the Slippery Ann Wildlife Refuge in Charles M Russell Wildlife Refuge. Much less crowded and if you don’t mind going into a more rough territory it is well worth the show. There will be less than 20 people and you will get quite a show of some magnificent bulls and maybe a battle or two. The Missouri Breaks is world famous for elk hunting and Slippery Ann Wildlife Refuge is a great show that very few take advantage of. I was introduced to the Missouri Breaks by Fish Fisher of Shed Wars and presently have his very affordable Missouri Breaks Retreat on the market.

How Montana Ranchers and Farmers Help

The Montana elk rut plays out all over Montana. The majority of elk hunting in Montana is done on public land. That is why there is so much value in Montana Ranches that have good size herds of elk. Crops can be planted that help maximize antler growth. The recreational value can be tremendous whether your family hunts or whether you lease the hunting rights for a very nice income. There are the common higher dollar ranch areas that command higher dollars but as big as the state of Montana is there are still numerous areas that offer good to great hunting with attractive appreciation potential. There are definitely a number of factors that affect value beside the hunting. Proximity to cities and airports, water rights and features, ranch income, public land access and several other factors. I really like the availability of elk, deer, upland bird and waterfowl hunting. They are available you just have to look for them. People also don’t realize how hard they are going to have to work for Montana elk and the Mule Deer/ Whitetail/Bird Hunting properties are undervalued if you have a place that offers all three. There are ample opportunities in Eastern Montana for this plus antelope and waterfowl hunting at very attractive prices.

There is friction between the general public and Montana private landowners at times due to access and just in general that the wildlife belongs to the public vs private ownership. Montana ranchers do more for wildlife on a day to day basis. They feed them 365 days of the year, even taking money out of their pocket. They do give access but in today’s society, they have a potential liability issue that threatens their livelihoods and assets. They can’t be careful enough when it comes to limiting liability in today’s world. The other thing is they are often left with roads, fences, and gates that they have to repair. They are left with remnants of field dressed animals that can attract grizzlies, mountain lions, and wolves that can further take money out of their pockets. They are also the point that numerous environmentalist groups target. So hug a Montana rancher or farmer during this Montana elk rut because there would be less bugling without them!

If you enjoyed this article you might enjoy our article about 13 Things to Ponder Before Buying a Montana Ranch or Characters in Montana Ranching – Fish’s Antler Art and if you want an inexpensive way to hunt famous Missouri Breaks Elk, look at the Missouri Breaks Retreat.

Are you looking to purchase or market a Montana Ranch or Farm? I can help you navigate this life-changing transaction. Investments in Montana ranches can mean generations of blood, sweat, and tears for those selling. For those purchasing, the investment can be rewarding both financially and emotionally. You won’t find another investment that you will create the memories you will in owning some of the last best place, Montana. Please feel free to contact Buzz.

About the Author


Montana Ranch Real Estate

Buzz Tatom

Partner at Venture West Ranches

Buzz Tatom, a partner at Venture West Ranches, is a ranch owner and has built, run and sold numerous businesses in his career. This gives him a unique background in helping Montana farmers and ranchers navigate the life decisions that we all have to face. Whether it is passing a ranch on to the next generation or planning for eventual sale, his talents and contacts help save clients money and navigate complicated transactions.



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